FDIC Q & A: Frank Viscuso

Frank Viscuso

FDIC Conference Director Diane Rothschild recently spoke with Deputy Chief (Ret.) Frank Viscuso, Kearny (NJ) Fire Department, who will give his keynote “It’s Time to Step Up!” at the FDIC 2020 Opening Ceremony Day 2, about the whole FDIC International “experience.”

DR: How long have you been teaching/attending FDIC International? 

FV: I have been teaching for and attending FDIC since 2012. This will be my ninth consecutive year presenting at the conference.


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DR: How did you get into instructing in general? 

FV: I have been providing leadership and team development training for business and athletic teams for more than 25 years. In 1998, I became a certified fire service instructor and began working as my organization’s training officer. From there, I started teaching classes within my state of New Jersey. After my book Step Up and Lead was published, Jim Duffy from Wallingford, Connecticut, asked me if I could provide officer development training for the members of his organization. I met Jim at FDIC one year earlier. I accepted his offer. That was the first of hundreds of presentations I have given throughout North America and Europe.

DR: What sets your experience at FDIC International apart from attending other conferences? 

FV: Without exaggeration, FDIC has been career and life altering for me. I always heard about the brotherhood that existed in the fire service (sisters included); however, I never really understood how powerful the bond among firefighters really was until I attended my first FDIC conference. The sheer scope of this conference is almost incomprehensible. More than 30,000 brothers and sisters meeting for one week to attend hands-on training, workshops, and classroom sessions, all with one goal in mind–to make our organizations and the fire service industry better.  The energy that comes from FDIC is unlike the energy at any other event I have ever attended, and the lifelong bonds that are formed are absolutely priceless. This is one of the reasons so many regular attendees refer to FDIC as the “Greatest Show on Earth.”

DR: What was your reaction to being selected to keynote at the Opening Ceremony? 

FV: After Bobby Halton [education director] told me that I was going to be the keynote speaker in 2020, I hung up the phone, put my hands up to my face, and thanked God for this honor. It was an emotional moment for me for many reasons. One reason was the fact that the first year I taught at FDIC, I received a few bad reviews. For a couple of days, I thought I would probably never teach at FDIC again. But then I realized that if I have an emotional reaction to every negative comment that is said about me, I will suffer for the rest of my life. I also acknowledged that someone’s opinion of you does not have to become your reality. I used the bad evaluations as a building block, adapted my teaching style and content, and continued to move forward. Being asked to keynote eight years after those reviews was satisfying because it made me understand that the prize is often rewarded to the people who don’t give up or give in. Grit and tenacity can beat out raw talent in the end, and they often do.

DR: What do you think is the most pressing issue facing the fire service today and why?

FV: Everyone in the fire service needs to realize that, regardless of their rank, they are in a leadership role. Rank means nothing to the person who dials 911. We are great at teaching our firefighters about strategy and tactics. We are great at putting out fires and extricating victims from entrapments. However, people in influential and decision-making positions need to realize that we also need strategy and tactics when dealing with people. It’s important that today’s leaders understand how to motivate the people around them, build morale, constructively critique team members, identify and deal with insubordination, and set higher standards. Having worked with thousands of firefighters from hundreds of organizations, I have heard the gripes of many frustrated firefighters and officers at all levels, and it often comes down to ineffective leadership. This is why I am fully committed to continuing to provide today’s and tomorrow’s leaders with the tools they need to lead, manage, and motivate their teams. We can’t accept minimum standards. Minimum standards are one step above inadequate. We have to strive for excellence. The people who call for us when they need help deserve the best response possible. It all starts with leadership, and every firefighter at every rank is a leader within their community.

DR: What is your “takeaway” from a week at FDIC International? 

FV: My biggest takeaway has been that I was not too small or insignificant to make positive change in my organization or the fire service. Like most people in the world, I wanted to see positive change in my workplace; and, like most people in the world, I was waiting for someone to step up and make that change. After attending FDIC, I realized I could be the one to make those changes. Years ago, I stopped looking for someone else to lead and began changing the things I had control over. This began with me changing my own outlook and attitude and eventually doing whatever I could to change my organization by writing more than 70 standard operating guidelines, developing driver training and probationary firefighter training programs, and acquiring more than $3 million in grant money. After attending FDIC, I felt empowered and realized that I could do more. I no longer look for other people to be the ones to lead my teams to better places; if change needs to be made, I am willing to be the one who takes the initiative to do so. I also constantly remind myself that whatever I am not changing, I am choosing.

DR: Who are your FDIC International role models and why?

FV: Bobby Halton is at the top of my list, but the fact is I have met most of my best friends at FDIC. I can’t name them all because I would surely miss someone and regret not listing them all because they all serve as role models of mine. The import thing that I want anyone reading this to know is that the people who influenced me the most weren’t always the ones in front of the largest rooms or those who traveled throughout the states helping improve the fire service. Some of the people who inspire me the most are the ones who work in organizations run by dysfunctional leadership or organizations that have fallen into a coma of complacency; however, they continue to press forward and try to make positive change within their organization. And believe me, we have no shortage of positive culture creators within our industry. Those are the ones I look up to. I raise my glass and tip my helmet to those people. They inspire me to continue to fight the good fight.

DR: What advice do you have for first-time attendees? 

FV: Don’t miss the conference by 20 feet. FDIC is an amazing experience, but it’s easy for some to get caught up in the environment. I recommend attending the social events. Taking in the sights around Indianapolis is worth it. Networking with like-minded people in between the classes is essential, but don’t come all the way to Indianapolis, Indiana, only to miss the conference by 20 feet. Get in the classrooms and absorb as much information as you possibly can so you can take it back to your organization. There is a good chance that in one of those classrooms you will hear the words that can change the direction of your career or life. It happened to me at a conference one time. The speaker in front of the room said, “A leader of one can become a leader of many, but if you can’t lead one, you’ll never lead any.” Even though the room was full, I felt as if those words were spoken to me directly and those words changed my life. It’s important that everyone goes into the classrooms understanding that sometimes all you need is to take away one good sentence or one great idea that you can implement within your life or organization to make your time in that session worthwhile. Seek out those sentences and ideas with an open mind, and enjoy the “Greatest Show on Earth.”

Thursday, April 23, 2020

8:00 a.m.-10:00 a.m.

Sagamore Ballroom, Indiana Convention Center

Keynote: “It’s Time to Step Up!”

Deputy Chief (Ret.) Frank Viscuso, Kearny (NJ) Fire Department

No one anoints a leader. A person may be promoted to a position or a rank, but no one assigns a leader. True leadership is movement, not position. Leadership is a choice, but so is procrastination. You don’t have to ask for permission to be a leader. You simply have to recognize the fact that it is time for you to step up and begin leading YOU. We are all human beings with the same basic needs. We want to feel loved. We want to provide for those we love. We want to matter and make a difference somehow, some way. For many, the most fulfilling way to make a difference is to lead others in a mission. But to do so, we must first learn to lead ourselves, because if you can’t lead YOU, you can’t lead, PERIOD! This keynote will inspire you to do and be more. It will remind you that you are not too small or insignificant to make a difference in your organization. It will encourage you to “Step Up and Lead.”

Deputy Chief (Ret.) Frank Viscuso served 27 years on the Kearny (NJ) Fire Department. He is a regular contributor to Fire Engineering and has written eight books, including the bestsellers Step Up and Lead, Step Up Your Teamwork, and Common Valor: True Stories from America’s Bravest (Volume 1). In 1996, he was selected Firefighter of the Year in his department and received the Medal of Valor for jumping into the freezing Passaic River on a cold winter night to rescue a man from drowning. He was also honored by VFW Post 1302 and the Knights of Columbus for his actions that evening. In 2016, he received the New Jersey State FMBS Mark Virag Memorial Brotherhood Award–the organization’s highest honor, which recognizes unselfish actions in the true spirit of brotherhood–for going beyond the call of duty to aid a brother firefighter he had never met.

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